Outlaw was the only team willing to test the bumpy conditions offshore on Thursday and unfortunately came away empty-handed for its efforts. The rest of the fleet was busy making final preparations for the expected hectic two days ahead. The format calls for fishing two of three days, with one mandatory lay day at the captain’s discretion. So Friday, the remaining 78 sport-fishers will idle out of their slips at Zero Dark-thirty, slide through Rudee Inlet and motor off in the general direction of Bermuda or Greenland, if it hasn’t been sold already. They’ll be hunting white and blue marlin, sailfish, spearfish and possibly a monster blue to test the crane boom back at Tournament Headquarters. Juggernaut will be among the searchers.
“We’re leaving out about 4 am and will probably run about 20 knots,” says David “Big Wave Dave” Walden, one of the team members. Juggernaut is a 36-foot custom Carolina style convertible built locally by the owner. “It’s going to be bumpy, so we’ll take our time. We’re figuring four hours each way to get where we’re going and back.” Walden was reluctant to divulge the exact area they would be fishing, but it’s not a compass heading towards Dixie.
Walden and his fellow competitors will be looking for telltale signs, which include water temperature breaks, color changes, weed lines and bait on the surface or located below by the boat’s sonar. Tinker mackerel and squid are the primary forage for the targeted game fish.
“Sometimes the squid will be balled up on the surface,” Walden explains. “It looks like a bush sticking up in the water as the fish herd ‘em up. It’s really cool to see.”
The VBBT is predominantly a release format. Whites and smaller blues comprise the bulk of the catch. Larger blue marlin can be weighed if they exceed either 400 pounds or 110 inches, which is measured from the tip of the lower jaw to the fork of the tail. White marlin are rarely larger than 80 pounds, but the fish are extremely acrobatic and leader shy so most teams opt for 50- or 60-pound test leader fished on 20- or 30-pound class tackle. The favorite baits are small “dink” ballyhoo and most are rigged to skip just below the surface without skirts or “naked” in mate vernacular. Dredges or wire umbrella rigs with more ballyhoo and daisy chain teasers, typically adorned with multi-colored plastic squid, are pulled behind the transom or short off the outriggers to simulate a school of bait to draw the gamefish into the spread.
White marlin and sailfish often travel in packs so when one fish is hooked, the opportunity for more exists. The captain will make a slow turn with the baits still in the water as the anglers man the rods. The lingering fish may hit a secondary trolled bait or pounce on one fluttering down as it drifts below the outriggers. This coordinated orchestration requires skill, timing and a feel for the subtle strikes. It is fast-paced big-game finesse fishing in the extreme and the top crews know the drill and dance quickly around the cockpit when double or even triple-header hook-ups occur. Those chances don’t happen all the time so when they do, it’s crucial to take full advantage to maximize the scoring opportunities.
According to Tournament Control’s Julia Brakhage, the scoring guru since the VBBT’s inception, the fleet has averaged 110 billfish releases collectively per day, taking into account highs and lows over 15 years. A-Salt Weapon (Capt. Dennis Endee) is the all-time leader with 15 in single day and 23 total releases for the tournament in 2016.
Will that happen again this year? Anything is possible and in billfishing, like other sports, records are meant to be broken. The game gets underway at 8:30 am Friday.